La Damnation de Faust

Music of Yesterday

(The Damnation of Faust)

Opera in four parts by Hector Berlioz.

In the first part Faust, the learned philosopher, wanders in the fields, near a German village, at sunrise, meditating upon nature. He observes a crowd of peasants who dance and sing, jesting rudely. The Hungarian troops approach to martial music. Great excitement prevails among the peasants. Faust alone remains cold and unmoved.

The second part opens with Faust in his study, deploring his unhappy lot. Neither in nature, nor in books, nor in old memories has he found solace. He decides to take poison; but as he raises the cup to drink, the strains of an Easter hymn turn his thoughts toward good. Even then the fiend Mephisto is at his elbow, tempting him with promises of earthly joys. He succumbs and goes forth with the fiend in search of pleasure. They enter a wine cellar in which a number of boon companions are carousing. Mephisto joins them, but Faust is disgusted by their uproarious ribaldry. Led by Mephisto to a garden on the banks of the Elbe, he falls asleep amid the music of a chorus of sylphs, and dreams of Marguerite, a fair unknown peasant girl. As the sylphs dance about him he awakens, still thinking of Marguerite and desiring to find her. A troop of soldiers march by, returning from war and eager for pleasure. They are joined by a band of students, who proclaim in song the joys of wine and love.

Part third begins with distant drums and trumpets sounding the retreat. Faust impatiently awaits Marguerite in her dwelling. Mephisto warns him of her coming, and he conceals himself in her room. Marguerite enters, musing upon a strange dream of an unknown lover. She braids her hair, singing dreamily of the faithful King of Thule. Mephisto invokes the powers of evil and begins a mocking serenade, while in the garden without the will o’ the wisps dance. Faust appears before Marguerite, who is startled, but in an ardent love scene they declare their mutual passion, and Marguerite at last is persuaded to give herself to her lover. The entrance of Mephisto, to tell them that the villagers are coming to warn Marguerite’s mother of her danger, terrifies the bewildered girl. She and Faust part reluctantly, while Mephisto exults over the enslavement of his victim. The villagers approach muttering threats, as Mephisto forces Faust to depart.

In part fourth Marguerite, heavy hearted, sits alone, thinking of her lover, who comes not. Soldiers march by singing of the glories of war. Faust, alone in his study, has found solace in nature, but Mephisto disturbs him with the news that Marguerite is in prison, condemned to death for the murder of her mother, Marthe, to whom the fiend had given too powerful a sleeping potion. Faust signs a paper whish he believes will free Marguerite, but which really gives over his own soul to perdition. Faust and the fiend then set forth on a wild ride through the darkness. As they gallop along they hear women and children praying. Strange shapes close around them presaging death. The horses tremble and snort with fear. Faust imagines that it rains blood. Everywhere he sees horrible visions, and at last he is hurled into the abyss to which the fiend has craftily led him, and is forever lost. The Prince of Darkness appears attended by infernal spirits, who exult over his downfall.

With a change of scene a celestial chorus is heard, and the spirit of Marguerite, saved by faith and repentance, is received into heaven. With her apotheosis the drama ends. This opera is noteworthy as being among those in which Berlioz introduced some of his most astonishing technical effects.

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